The Liberal Democrats are urging the government to push Ofcom to require social tariffs from broadband and mobile providers, as research reveals seven million low-income households are paying too much for connectivity.
Jamie Stone, MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), has written to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries to request a meeting on potential social tariffs in the sector.
Rule changes that came into force in December 2020 would allow telecoms regulator Ofcom to require broadband and mobile providers to offer social tariffs, discounted products for low-income and vulnerable consumers.
However, after research into affordability and debt in the sector, Ofcom decided in July to not require an industry-wide social tariff. Justifying this decision, it said the price of broadband had fallen and uptake of existing social tariffs is low.
Ofcom stuck with its existing guidance to ISPs and mobile operators, “strongly encouraging” them to offer social tariffs, and urged those that do to better publicise them.
Stone says this was a missed opportunity. “This Government has let this slip through the net,” he wrote to Dorries.
With energy bills having “skyrocketed,” the case for discounts on telecoms service is now stronger. “If vulnerable households could save a bit of money on broadband and mobile, it could make a huge difference,” he wrote.
"In an age where digital connectivity is more important than ever, this change could make a huge positive difference to thousands, if not millions of vulnerable households,” the letter continued.
“We ask to meet with you in the new year to discuss the potential of the Government instructing Ofcom to instate mandatory and universal broadband and mobile social tariffs for vulnerable consumers.”
The letter was also signed by several Lib Dem peers, including Lord McNally, Baroness Bonham-Carter, Lord Clement-Jones, Baroness Kramer and Lord Fox.
In response, a DCMS spokesperson said: "Everyone deserves affordable broadband. We've successfully negotiated with BT, Virgin Media and others to offer low-cost broadband deals for anyone on Universal Credit or other means-tested benefits.
"Eligible households in 99 per cent of the UK can access these tariffs, and we are continuing to work with providers to bring even more affordable tariffs to the market.”
BT’s Home Essentials tariff offers fibre speeds of 36Mbps for £15 per month to all Universal Credit recipients. It’s an upgrade of BT’s previous social tariff, which was slower and available to fewer households.
Similarly, Virgin Media’s Essential Broadband, launched in November 2020, delivers speeds of 15Mbps for £15 per month to all Universal Credit recipients.
Hyperoptic’s Fair Fibre Plan, on offer since March 2021, offers full-fibre plans with average speeds of 50Mbps for £15 for households on certain benefits reached by its network.
In Hull, KCOM offers Lightstream Flex, with 30Mbps download speeds, for £20 per month. However, it restricts those speeds to 128kbps once you exceed a 20GB data allowance.
There are no social tariffs for mobile services available.
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